Monday, 19 June 2017

Cape Town - Africa’s Most Beautiful City

Cape Town from Table Mountain aerial cableway

Photos & blog by Brett Goulston

It’s hard to argue about the beauty of this city, at the very bottom of the African continent. With Table Mountain as a backdrop to the harbour, it’s difficult to take a bad photo. Not only does it have natural beauty, it’s packed with things to see and do for all ages. It is not difficult to fill four or five days – or more, sight seeing in Cape Town South Africa. 

Cape Town has become a safe destination for the traveller, providing you stay in the right area. The V&A Harbour precinct (Victoria & Alexander) has a large police and private security presence. The reputation was not great going back 10 years or more but you certainly feel safe these days. 

Most of the tourist action is at V&A which was completely refurbished about 5 years ago. There are many wonderful shops selling local products, markets, great restaurants (complete with views), cafes and buskers galore. People watching is a great pastime in this area, especially given the fact that it is not expensive to sit, eat and drink when compared to home! 

On your trip make sure you take the cable car to the national park at the top of Table Mountain. The views are to die for and there’s some highly enjoyable short walks. A half-day ferry trip to Robben Island where the great Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison is also worth the money and the effort. There are multiple ferry services each day. Plus, Cape Town also has some interesting museums. One worthy of special mention is called  District Six. It documents how the locals (mainly poorer, black citizens) were  forcibly removed from their homes to make way for a new business district in the 1970’s during the apartheid period. 

Leave the city for day trips to the “winelands” where both food and wine will want you coming back for more. Paarl, Franshhoek and Stelenbosch are all worth visiting and can be done together in one day. A full day Cape Town tour is also a great way to see the local region. You’ll see a lot of wildlife (seals, penguins and more) plus pretty colonial towns like Simon's Town which is great for a lunch stop - fish & chips by the water.  

Finally, for the real adventure seekers, shark cage diving at Hermanus – about two hours drive – will get the adrenaline rushing. If you survive, it makes for a great dinner party story!  So you can see there are plenty of things to do in Cape Town. 

Click here for more information about Blue Dot Travel's small group wildlife safari tour which also takes in Cape Town. 

Map of Cape Town and surrounding areas
Cape Town with Table Mountain in background

Table Mountain aerial cableway

Rock hyrax commonly called a dassie

Robben Island with Brett & Holly Goulston

Baboon living in the Table Mountain national park

Cape of Good Hope - the most south-western point of the African continent

Local seal off Simon's Town

Central Hotel Simon's town

African penguin at Simon's Town

Monday, 12 June 2017

There are fish markets and then, there are fish markets! Busan, South Korea

Photos & story by Brett Goulston

There are fish markets and then, there are fish markets!   The Jagalchi Fish Markets in Busan fall into the latter category. Markets are not every traveller’s “thing” but I have to confess to being a market tragic - especially when they are there for the locals, not the tourists. And even more so when they don’t have heaps of stuff manufactured in that country that manufactures everything!

I spent a few days in Busan which is Korea’s second major city. There’s over 3 million people but this makes it about one third the size of the capital. 

The question is what to see in Busan South Korea?  There’s a lot to see and do including temples, beaches, cultural villages, shopping and great food. However the main attraction – in my view – is the fish markets. 

They are housed in two buildings – a huge modern complex and an older one right next door. I’m not sure how big they are but it feels like the size of an undercover a football field. As you would expect, there’s a strong smell of the ocean and of fish so be prepared for this. There’s yelling and screaming from every direction. Many of the stall owners are woman and I was hissed at by one elderly lady when I went to take a photo of her display. (While I thought it was quite funny at the time, she certainly didn’t). 

If it moves and lives in the sea, chances are, it’s for sale at these markets. In fact, it doesn’t even have to move! You’ll find, fish, squid and octopus, sea urchins, mollusks, slugs, seaweed, and the biggest crabs in the history of crabs – no kidding.  

A word of warning or two... You’re likely to get wet feet so wear old shoes. And if you are going to take photos, ask first or do it without getting caught. Or, like me you might get hissed at! 

Blue Dot Travel stop over in Korea on the way to The Stans of Central Asia.  Many of our clients spend a few additional days exploring South Korea.  You can do a day trip from Seoul to Busan on the high speed train.  It is 3 hours each way so consider staying over night.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Kolkata and its street markets

Famous Kolkata River Ghats
Story & photos by Brod Brennan

Kolkata has a dark history from the days of it’s formation by the British East India company in the late 1600s to the early Bengal insurrections such as the Black Hole of Calcutta and the India freedom movement of Gandhi.  The very essence of India’s nationhood stems from Kolkata’s intellectual class and their sense of independence. It was this fierce independence that led the British to move the capital from Kolkata to Delhi in 1911.

Modern day Kolkata is a vibrant and confident city. The Hooghly River, a tributary of the massive Ganges River, is the sacred heart  of the city with early morning offerings to Shiva along the banks of the Ghats that were built by well off Kolkata businessmen as gifts to the people of Kolkata. Whilst the cremation of the dead is now forbidden along the banks of the Hooghly, the river is still revered as the Ganga, the giver of life and the most holy river in all of India.

Adjacent to the Hooghly ghats is the Kolkata flower markets.  A wild explosion of yellow and orange marigold wreaths, red roses and kum kums create a spectacular chorus of colour matched only by the wild cachophany of merchants bidding against one another. The massive bunches of flowers are delivered chaotically on the backs of men and women to be traded three times a day to ensure freshness and to keep up with the cities insatiable demand from the hundreds of Hindi, buddhist and Jain temples. These should all be added to your Kolkata trip. 

Further up from the flower markets are the Kolkata potters markets. They were in a lull period during our visit which was after the festival season when the potters are in full swing making life size clay replicas of the Ganesh, Shiva, Krishna and Vishnu for street parades, festival ceremonies and offerings down at the river side.

The artisans have specialised roles from forming the underling base of the figure in weaved bamboo, through to the rough casting in cow dung to the final fine clay layers where detail is added to the deities before they are brightly painted, ready for the celebrations. Kolkata’s markets are the pulse of a throbbing city that is a visual and spiritual celebration of modern day India’s cultural diversity.  Our walking tours are the perfect way to experience Kolkata at it’s best and should be added to your itinerary for your trip to Kolkata.  

Join Blue Dot Travel in November when we take our small group tour to Nagaland and North East India including this wonderful city of Kolkata.  Click here for details.

Special prayer

Kolkata flower market seller

Strings of yellow and gold marigolds at the Kolkata flower market

Rose Petals abound

Always time for a chai in a disposable clay cup

Potters quarter near Kolkata flower market - churn out wonderful statues

Quiet time to read the paper

Kolkata Jain temple

Beautiful ladies outside Kolkata Jain temple

Monday, 29 May 2017

Villa Romana del Casale - Wonders of Sicily

By Margaret Farrell
A major highlight of our visit to Sicily was The Villa Romana del Casale  (a Roman Villa), built in the first quarter of the 4th century and located about 3 km outside the town of Piazza Armerina Sicily, southern Italy. It contains the richest, largest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world, and has been designated as one of 49 UNESCO World heritage Sites in Italy.

Historians have been unable to identify the owner, save to verify that he was extremely wealthy with the possibility that it was a holiday house for a member of the Imperial family. The villa had forty rooms, including a gymnasium, bathhouse, basilica (huge meeting room), extensive dining room, and a wide corridor stretching for about 70 metres. The floors in every room were covered in colourful mosaics, most of which have survived more or less intact. Needless to say, yours truly went crazy with the camera.

One large room features a number of Bikini Girls indulging in athletic pursuits. They are wearing a Roman version of that very modern article of clothing. Their bras, however, look more like breast bands, and the girls were pretty well flat-chested. 

The long corridor depicts the trials involved in importing exotic animals for the Roman circus, with handlers trying to cope with lions, tigers, elephants, bulls etc. The variety of animals is very impressive. Some of them, including the elephant, are being dragged on board ships by anxious looking workers.

There’s even a suite of rooms at the villa with children’s themes, probably the nursery.  You could easily spend all day here but there are many things to do in Sicily.  

Why not add on a private tour of Sicily with your small group tour of Corsica, Sardinia and Malta with Blue Dot Travel!    Click here for more information.
Sicily Map

Bikini Girls

Bikini Girls

Monday, 22 May 2017

Lithuania, The Baltics - One of the gems of Europe

Island castle of Trakai

By Brett Goulston

You’ll need at least a week to see the best of what this country has to offer. Here are some of the best places to visit in Lithuania.

Without doubt, the capital city Vilnius, is a treasure.  The old town was listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site, back in 1994. It had a strong Jewish influence up until the 20th Century. Napoleon is said to have called it “the Jerusalem of the north”! The city has many museums but if you are not a traditional “museum goer”, then at least head to the Museum of the Genocide Victims. It’s fascinating – all the more so given what happened was not that long ago! 

Vilnius is a great place to eat or just stop for coffee. Not just because there are some good restaurants in the old town, but because it must be one of the best people watching places in the Baltics. There are numerous squares with locals and tourists going about their day, all in a setting of beautiful architecture in every direction.  

The most popular tourist destination in Lithuania is the township of Trakai with its castle and other medieval buildings, about 30 minutes from the capital. It’s a good 3 hour visit and do not forget your camera. A reflection of the orange towers on the lake, with a boat or two in the foreground is pretty special. 

The former capital city - Kaunas – is another city definitely worth exploring. Ensure you make time to see the medieval castle and wander through the old town’s streets. There are numerous cafes (good coffee) and places to eat where you can sit and people watch.

For a fix of “quirkiness”, head to the Hill of Crosses in the north of the country. There are an estimated 100,000 plus crosses – of all sizes - placed on a small hill which origins are not properly known. It’s thought that the original crosses may have been placed there by family of the deceased, around 1830 after civil unrest.  

Visit Lithuania with Blue Dot Travel. Click here for our Baltic small group tour itinerary… 

Map of Lithuania
The capital city Vilnius

Hill of crosses

Port of Klaipeda

Egle - Queens of the Serpents - Palanga Botanical Sculpture Garden